The Idea

More probiotic information.

The Details

A little help from our government.

The ARS people are getting serious about this. The latest edition of the American Bee Journal, August 2009, page 755, outlines their approach for studying ‘The Importance of Microbes In Nutrition and Health of Honey Bee Colonies’.

This is the third part of a series of articles. The first two pretty much cover the same ground as discussed here at Beesource.

The ARS will use a metagenomic approach to detail what critters are found in various kinds of bees, under different seasons, environmental conditions and colony health. I think this is important research to follow and will be the leading edge of bee research. It could certainly help quantify what many of us have observed.

More From Sweden And The ARS

Page 1169 in the December 2009 American Bee Journal describes more research concerning those beneficial critters in a bee’s stomach. From it, I gathered the following:

  • 13 species of lactic acid bacteria were found in the bee’s stomach
  • the bacteria are unique to the bee
  • the bacteria don’t originate in flowers or pollen
  • they kill food spoiling bacteria
  • they kill honey bee pathogens
  • completely suppress foulbrood in bee larva
  • compliment the bee’s immune system
  • they kill bacteria commonly found in infected human wounds
  • are viable in fresh, uncapped honey less than two weeks old
  • ferment bee bread
  • preserve honey
  • fresh unheated honey is a great probiotic
  • results have been replicated in Sweden and by the ARS

The implications of this research are profound, both for the bee and for us.  And it confirms what many natural beekeepers have known for years:

  • anything internal or external that messes with the bees internal bacteria wrecks bee health
  • fresh unprocessed honey is best
  • heating/processing honey destroys its healthful qualities

Probiotics For Bees And The Latest Research

The Swedish researchers have patented a probiotic bee mixture. But why wait. The latest research shows that the beneficial bacteria found inside a bee’s stomach persist, for a time,  in both honey and bee bread. Like always, the bees do it best for themselves. A comb of fresh, uncontaminated bee bread and honey is the ideal source of bee probiotics. But there are problems:
  • seasonally scarce
  • difficult to maintain
  • viability difficult to evaluate

Pollen Patty

Another option might be to use fresh honey and bee bread to inoculate a pollen patty mixture. The reduced sugar concentration of a pollen patty might allow the bacteria to live longer.

If a commercial pollen substitute is used, one should be selected that doesn’t contain some kind of preservative that would inhibit biologic growth.


A liquid mixture is cheaper, easier to maintain, and apply than a pollen patty based probiotic. And it reduces the risk of introducing diseases and contaminates if the pollen is purchased and not trapped.

Nothing is known about kombucha and bee lacto bacteria. But using fresh honey, instead of sugar, and bee bread added to the mix would be a good start. My own experience with kombucha indicates that the bacteria involved survive in a range of temperatures for months. Let’s hope it’s the same for the bee’s bacteria.

A kombucha based fresh honey/bee bread mixture could produce a kombucha scoby inoculated with bee’s lacto bacteria. The scoby is a zoogleal mat comprised of symbiotic bacteria and yeast. Multiple and continuous batches can be produced using the scoby as a starter.

Sugar Syrup

Maybe it’s the ultimate solution. But my personal experience indicates it lacks the stability and consistency found in a kombucha based culture.

And a pure sugar solution probably wouldn’t have the necessary nutrients for a thriving probiotic culture.


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6 Responses

  1. Rod Lawrence says:

    Ok Dennis I’ll bite, suppose I get a sample of the orginal mother that has nothing but sugar added and a sample of my mother that has at least six or seven batches of raw honey (other than the light bulb under the bucket to get the air bubbles out) from the summer harvest under its belt.
    Is there somebody that could compare the two w/out spending a small fortune?
    I know the test controls suck but I do sterilize everything between batches. Interesting concept eh?

    • -bW says:

      Hi Rod,

      It would be an interesting comparison! But I don’t know anyone personally. I think those that could do it would probably charge plenty being used to medical/disease diagnostic referral fees rather than working with bee farmers :>)

      Maybe there’s someone out there that’s has both skills and an interest?


      • Tim says:

        This is a REALLY late reply, but I keep coming back to this blog post. Thought I would leave my two cents since I have a little experience with culturing ‘probiotic’ foods and with bees.

        I don’t want to sound discouraging because I think this general line of thinking is great, and I have a keen interest in the microflora of the hive. (Dennis, we actually corresponded a little on this topic some time back.) However this kombucha approach is a little problematic from my point of view.

        First there is the question of whether the resident microflora in a typical kombucha culture will benefit bees. That question has already sorta been mentioned. The real problem is that there is PROBABLY no such thing as a ‘typical’ kombucha mother. I mean there may be a typical profile for the types of yeasts and bacteria found in kombucha, and some strains may be particularly dominant in all kombucha mothers, but I suspect the actual diversity varies wildly from one mother to the next.

        Like kefir the the number and type of strains likely varies with local conditions, and possibly even the change of seasons. I someone gives you a mother, the moment you open the jar you’re introducing your local yeast and bacteria to the mix. The only way around this is to individually culture each strain of yeast and bacteria under laboratory conditions and mix them back together.

        This is how commercial kefir and kefir starter (sans mother/grains) is made. But this isn’t a truly balanced, self-sustaining symbiosis…it’s what humans are trying to force to work together.

        Point being: Even if honey works as a fermentable media for culturing kombucha, there’s absolutely no guarantee that resident kombucha cultures will want to play nice with bee-gut cultures for any viable length of time.

        So why use a kombucha mother when the bees have their own probiotic mix? Perhaps inoculating a honey solution with healthy bee bread would better provide bee probiotics(?)

      • -bW says:

        Hi Tim

        There’s a European company that is, or will soon market a probiotic bee feed suppliment. Researchers have found an assortment of beneficial microorganisms that are unique to bees. And it must be introduced to their young as it isn’t found anywhere else in nature. The last year’s American Bee Journal had an article on the research. I don’t remember the issue. I’ll have to search for it and get back with you.


  2. Faith says:

    Really interesting post. Kudos for thinking outside of the box.
    Something to consider is that kombucha is partly bacterial and partly yeast. As I understand it, it is more yeast than bacterial, so describing the mother as a mushroom is fairly accurate. I have heard of people who use raw honey with their kombucha with success, although I have not done this with my kombucha and heard it grows a bit slower than with sugar. It does make sense that it would work well for fermentation though- after all, isn’t honey mead one of the most ancient beverages? So clearly, yeast has an affinity for honey.
    So you are saying that the research points a finger at sugar used with beekeeping, that possibly beekeepers are placing their hives at risk by using too much sugar and not keeping enough honey for the bees? How do beekeeping practices outside of the United States compare with our use of sugar supplementation, I wonder? And how do they compare in terms of mite resistance and hive health (we would have to compare similar strains of bees for accuracy).

    • -bW says:

      Hi Faith

      Years ago I’ve tried using raw honey to produce kombucha. But I’ve never been satisfied using it. I think the numerous sugar tolerant yeasts found in raw honey overwhelm those found in the kombucha. The results have been an off-tasting/smelling kombucha that reminds me of the water/honey mixtures that quickly ferment when cleaning up after a day of commercial honey extraction.

      And I’ve used raw honey to produce some excellent mead. But the wild yeasts in honey are killed early in the process before the preferred fermenting yeasts are added.

      I think that could be done with honey/tea mixture before adding the kombucha mother when kombucha is batch produced. But it wouldn’t work when running a continuous process.

      Sugar in the hives? Combs of honey and pollen are always the best feed. It’s what the bees choose. 🙂 Everything else is a compromise. But feeding sugar is better than letting them starve. The bees greatly prefer it to the alternative. 😉

      How do beekeepers use sugar worldwide? How does it affect bee health? Anyone?


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